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National Conservation Training Center to burn prairie grass

Land manager says controlled burning is the best way to maintain and promote the grasslands

February 14, 2013|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • Phil Pannill, land manager at National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va., stands among the prairie grasses that will be part of a controlled burn this spring.
By Richard F. Belisle, Staff Writer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — About 22 acres of prairie grasses, the kind that once covered the Great Plains and even parts of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, will be scorched in a controlled burn at the National Conservation Training Center this spring.

The acres to be burned represent about a third of the more than 60 acres planted in prairie grasses at the 500-plus acre Fish and Wildlife training center off Shepherd Grade Road, said Phil Pannill, NCTC land manager. This is the third year that a section of the grassland has been burned off, he said.

Controlled burning is the best way to maintain and promote the grasslands, Pannill said. Among varieties of warm-spring prairies grasses growing at the center are switchgrass, little and big bluestem and Indiangrass.

“They all thrive on fire,” Pannill said.

“These grasses are highly desirable wildlife habitat for ground nesting birds and small mammals like rabbits and mice. They go under and between the clumps seeking food and safety,” he said. Likewise, they provide a hunting ground for hawks, eagles, owls and foxes, he said.

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In another benefit, the fires consume invading trees and shrubs that would otherwise overtake the fields, Pannill said.

Wind and weather conditions will dictate when the fires will be set.

“We need ideal conditions — relative humidity, no snow or rain, mild wind blowing in the right direction.

We want the smoke to go up, not spread out near the ground,” Pannill said. “These fires usually burn quickly then go out. Fire breaks will be created to prevent spreading.”

Experienced firefighters from the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service will do the burning.

In another effort to maintain the natural environment on training center grounds, Pannill said 30 deer were killed in controlled hunts last fall. “This property is not fenced. Since deer move on and off our land there’s no way to accurately predict our population,” Pannill said. Annual surveys give some idea on the numbers.

The center is an official West Virginia deer check-in station during deer season. Private hunters are chosen at random after they apply for the right to hunt on the grounds. They are assigned specific hunting days, times and deer stands, Pannill said.

Weapons are restricted to shotguns, muzzleloaders and bow and arrow, he said.

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